For years, it has seemed that the GNU/Linux desktop was right on the cusp of being ready for the mainstream desktop out of the box. Recent distributions, such as Mandrake Linux 9.2, bring the desktop to the mainstream, but something is still lacking: complete unity.
That is not to say that “the desktop” can't be ready before such a difficult goal is achieved - after all, Microsoft's products have always suffered disunity - take for instance in the late 1990's when Windows 98, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office 97 or 2000 all had slightly differing UI's. Even today, Windows XP and Office differ in some ways. Yet, the GNU/Linux desktop, for much of its life, has suffered this to a much more extreme extent.
Most of the distributions have attempted to fix this in some way. Red Hat, Mandrake and SuSE all include a unified theme in their distribution that makes GTK+ and Qt/KDE applications feel somewhat more alike, but it's a matter of fact that the differing desktop's look-and-feel will never totally match by just plugging in a theme. Even the best attempt, the Keramik and Geramik combination, which can do color matching between the two major desktops, doesn't do anything for the inherent differences between how GTK+ and Qt/KDE applications act. That's a much more difficult order to fill.
It has been my contention for some time that the real goal for a distribution ought to be to pick one desktop environment and make it work right, and keep the other only for compatibility reasons. Such actions would have avoided community outrage for things such as the “Nullization” of KDE last fall and would also allow the distribution to focus all of its attention toward the desktop it prefers and thus bring out a more polished system. Few distributions do that, Lindows and Lycoris being the only two of the top five or ten distributions, and they are still second-tier distributions at best.
Mandrake Linux 9.2, as I mentioned at the beginning, comes very close to a solid, unified desktop. But even it has weaknesses. If you want an Outlook-like organization program, you must use Ximian Evolution, which certainly does not feel like part of a KDE desktop. Kontact may solve this in KDE 3.2, but expecting it to be as mature as a product several years its senior in the very first release is probably unreasonable. Further more, since many users prefer Mozilla as a web browser, another weakness is possibly an issue: Mozilla does not fit well into KDE either (actually, Mozilla does not fit into any desktop completely, but more work has been done to integrate it into GNOME).
So, if you want to deploy a Free Software desktop, where are you going to turn? You could spend some time polishing up KDE or GNOME to fit your needs and then deploy your work. That's not a terribly bad idea, but if you want something ready out of the box, Ximian Desktop seems to be rapidly becoming the best choice. XD2, as it has been dubbed, offers something neither vanilla GNOME nor KDE can offer at the moment - a desktop that has been designed primarily for the enterprise desktop.
While it might seem counter to what one thinks about distributions to replace the default desktop packages in a distribution with something else, Ximian makes it so amazingly easy that it really is not an issue. At OfB Labs we tested XD2 and XD2 Professional on two supported platforms, Red Hat Linux 9 and SuSE Linux 8.2, over the past few months and each install went without any hitches. After copying and pasting a simple shell command into a terminal window and selecting a download mirror, our distribution was auto detected, we were offered a selection of Ximian packaged packages and then the installer did the rest, including removing a few incompatible packages that were installed by the distribution.
Ximian Desktop is fairly non-invasive. While it offers to replace the distribution's login manager with its own variant of GNOME's display manager, it does not force it on you, should you wish to continue using another one. Once I logged into my account on the test box, Ximian offered the choice to preserve my old GNOME settings or replace them with Ximian defaults. My KDE desktop files were also found and placed in a folder on the new Ximian desktop - a nice added touch.
After logging in, we tested Red Carpet to locate some updated packages and grab a preview of Ximian's version of OpenOffice 1.1.0. Red Carpet's impressively well thought out design also allowed us to install additional packages from our distribution and other Ximian products such as Mono and Connector. Installation was again simple, with a well-designed summary of what packages were going to be installed, what dependencies were going to also be fetched and what packages needed to be removed. The fact that the whole process was spelled out before any actual downloading or installation occurred insured that no nasty surprises would crop up after the process was complete.
XD2's strength is in the little things that make everything feel “right.” OpenOffice.org has been updated with attractive Ximian-style icons to make its visual appearance tie in to the rest of the environment. It is not prefect yet, by any means, but it is a really good start. Ximian has also integrated OpenOffice.org with the GNOME Virtual File System (VFS) so that you can open and save remote documents - such as those on Windows networks - directly from OpenOffice. When you are done working on a document, it is conveniently added to XD2's “Recent Documents” menu; something you would expect to happen but did not previously with OpenOffice.org.
Another smart change - again, a little thing - is that the default file format is already set to Microsoft Office formats. While a large scale deployment of OpenOffice.org might allow for internal use of its own XML-based format, Microsoft Office formats remain necessary for most people and defaulting to that format will likely be an added convenience for most users. We were quite pleased overall with the snapshot release of OpenOffice.org Ximian Edition 1.1.0, which seemed suitable for release (this article was actually written using the suite).
To take advantage of what users are already familiar with, Ximian Desktop also locates access to removable media, settings and network shares within a “My Computer” icon. Through the My Computer feature, we could easily access all of our removable media, which was automatically mounted for us, plus locate and browse different SAMBA workgroups with absolutely no extra configuration. This network browsing functionality is something that, unfortunately, has never worked out of the box for us in KDE's Konqueror.
Ximian also provided an attractively simple theme for GNOME applications, the aforementioned clear and eye-catching icons, a nice selection of professional fonts and a convenient installation of Macromedia Flash, Sun Java and Real Player. Again, nothing huge or groundbreaking, but all of which equal something quite elegant. Matched with GNOME 2.2's already well-designed UI, which seems to be modeled after some of the conventions used in Mac OS, Ximian Desktop definitely is ready for the enterprise desktop.
While some changes would be nice - such as an improved file dialog in GNOME applications and perhaps a matching one for OpenOffice.org, these things aren't necessary to enjoy the benefits of Ximian Desktop. The biggest issue with XD2 is not actually anything related to the functionality of the desktop; it has to do with the limited distribution support provided by Ximian. As of this writing, only SuSE 8.2 and Red Hat 8/9 are supported in XD2 - Fedora Core 1, SuSE Linux 9 and Mandrake Linux are all left out of the loop. We are less than hopeful about this changing should Ximian's parent, Novell, complete its acquisition of SuSE.
KDE still has the lead in a number of areas, such as customization (the ability to change color schemes, for instance); nevertheless, Ximian Desktop is probably the best choice in many enterprise scenarios. Ximian's Red Carpet system, for example, is one area where it outshines the alternatives, even non-GNU/Linux ones, in the ease of software management. Furthermore, the fact that all of the major applications enterprise users will want to use are available either as part of the GNOME/GTK+ toolkit (such as Evolution and Galeon for e-mail and web browsing, respectively) or are being integrated into the environment (such as OpenOffice.org) is an advantage held, for the moment, by Ximian Desktop alone.
Unless SCO is able to stop Novell's purchase of SuSE, Ximian's future stands to get even brighter as its technology is merged into one of the best distributions currently available. While this could worsen the support of other distributions, as mentioned above, overall this may very well be a good thing in the long run. Ximian is easy to use, convenient, well polished and robust. In many ways, it exemplifies the way things ought to be.
Summary of Ximian XD2|
UPSIDE: Ximian's second generation desktop offers a level of refinement